Q&A: Making XCOM tighter and more focused with Chimera Squad

XCOM: Chimera Squad lead designer Mark Nauta explains some of the reasoning behind the game's big changes to XCOM's turn-based tactical combat and offers some design insights straight from Firaxis.

Last month Firaxis Games surprised many by announcing and releasing XCOM: Chimera Squad, a standalone XCOM game that foregoes the series' penchant for blank-slate recruits fighting open battles against alien invaders.

Instead, Chimera Squad is tighter and more personal. Firaxis designed 11 unique characters players can choose from to build out their squad, and when you pick four of them to send on a mission, that mission typically spans 1-3 turn-based tactical combat encounters playing out across maps much smaller than those in previous XCOM games.

Notably, XCOM: Chimera Squad also handles turn order in combat differently than its predecessors. In previous XCOM games the player would move all their units, then the enemy would move theirs; in Chimera Squad, turns are interleaved such that each combatant has their own individual turn, with the turn order displayed so that players can see which enemies and Chimera Squaddies are going to act when.

Alongside interleaved turns Chimera Squad introduces a whole host of tactical abilities previously unavailable to XCOM players, both in the form of XCOM alien abilities (which are now accessible thanks to Chimera Squad's non-human members) and new abilities which specifically mess with units' place in the turn order.

Taken together, all these changes make Chimera Squad a significant departure from prior XCOM games, which is why the game debuted last month with a $20 price tag (instead of the usual $60 prior XCOM games launched at) and a 50 percent off launch discount. 

To find out more about how players are responding to the game, and what inspired Firaxis to introduce so many significant changes, Gamasutra recently chatted a bit (via email) with XCOM: Chimera Squad lead designer Mark Nauta. 

Nauta previously worked as a designer on 2016's XCOM 2 and its well-received 2017 War of the Chosen expansion pack. Here, he explains some of the reasoning behind Chimera Squad's big changes and contextualizes them against the rest of the XCOM franchise.

Can you walk us through the move to interleaved turns? What inspired you to go in that direction, and what specific challenges did you face?

When you’re a game designer, you’re always thinking: “What would happen if I changed this thing?”

With a strategy game, even a small change can have big ripples through the system and because this is a standalone game, we have a bit more flexibility in how people view and play it. We wanted to try out new ideas in the XCOM formula. Interleaved turns give you a lot of new and adaptive tactical options.

You can make on-the-fly strategic decisions based on who is coming up next in the timeline. Should you ignore weaker enemies that are coming up soon in the timeline and focus fire on a dangerous enemy who won’t act until later? Will you use your Team Up ability to move an agent away from a exploding vehicle now, or save it for later? The timeline shows *when* enemies will act, but not *what* they will do, forcing you to think on your feet when a grenade lands next to your healer or a chryssalid takes a bite out of your Psion.

These new decisions, paired with having combat broken up into Encounters separated by Breach Modes, means combat is a lot tighter and focused.  

Interleaved turns, plus the increased access to (and Intel incentive to use) non-lethal takedown options, make Chimera Squad the first XCOM game I know of in which players can roleplay "Good (X)Cops" -- completing missions without letting the enemy get a shot off, and subduing them all non-lethally. Was this intentional, and regardless, is it a theme/direction you want to continue to explore in future games?

I do think it’s important to acknowledge that Chimera Squad aren’t police – they’re a special forces unit called in by the actual police of City 31 to handle the threats posed by each of the factions in the game. With XCOM: Chimera Squad, we weren’t setting out to design a game where non-lethal play was the priority, but we did want to include those options when available as it made sense narratively and in the game’s tactical combat.

Narratively, you’re investigating each of the factions so you’d want to capture some enemies to draw intel from. For gameplay, we wanted to create a risk-reward situation where you could get a higher chance of gaining intel but would risk doing generally less damage or having to force your units to enter very close range to your enemies.

Fair enough! Why go with unique characters this time, instead of customizable recruits? How did this decision impact the production process?

The decision to go with unique agents was in some ways an evolution on some of the choices we made in the War of the Chosen expansion for XCOM 2, where you had specific characters and personalities in the Chosen, Elena Dragunova and Pratal Mox.

With XCOM: Chimera Squad, our story is set five years after the defeat of the Elders – which meant that many formerly mind-controlled aliens now find themselves in an unfamiliar world and must figure out what they’re going to do, how they’re going to live. We wanted to explore the concept of a new world being shared between humans, hybrids, and aliens, and that set the stage for introducing agents, who exemplify parts of the conflict.

Of course, the decision to shift to agents also meant big changes for tactical combat. In some ways, we now have 11 unique classes because no agents share skills with each other.

One of the most fun parts of developing XCOM: Chimera Squad was that because you have aliens and hybrids on your team, you can now use those alien abilities like Verge’s Mind Control or Torque’s Tongue Pull for your own benefit. Finding the synergy between squad mates, ways to set each other up, reposition and combine powers is a key part of the strategy for XCOM: Chimera Squad.

Can you share a concrete example that might help our game designer readers understand the way you had to change your thinking when moving from customizable XCOM squaddies to distinct agent characters? Was there a specific role you felt got diluted or lost, for example, or were there alien abilities from prior XCOM games that just didn't fit quite right in Chimera Squad?

The introduction of distinct Agents and the switch to interleaved rurns are interconnected. If we had interleaved turns but our units didn’t have unique abilities and playstyles, I think each turn would have ended up being much less interesting.

A big focus for us in designing the agents was making sure that each of them had something they could do each and every turn besides taking a standard shot action. Plus, that other ability had to be awesome because it is always competing against just shooting the enemy! Having unique agents also unlocks some fun gameplay in deciding how to build your squad with different character synergies and combos.

No combat roles were really lost in the switch over as we had 11 XCOM classes effectively with our new agents. Arguably, the Sniper class was lost as it didn’t make as much sense to include with our much more confined gameplay spaces, but the gameplay of high damage, precision shooting is still available through characters like Blueblood.

Overwatch and large AOE abilities were toned down in importance for Chimera Squad as they became much more oppressive with interleaved turns, because there is not always a teammate there to bail you out of the tough situations those abilities create.

How did the shift to smaller, more intimate encounters change your approach to combat design, and why make that shift away from the larger battlefields of XCOM  and XCOM 2

XCOM: Chimera Squad is entirely set in City 31 – an urban setting – meaning the tactical battlefields also needed to shift from expansive, open country areas to more contained ones, like warehouses, office spaces, etc.

The design of the battlefields also further amped up the intensity of the new combat modes. Breach mode in XCOM: Chimera Squad is an evolution of the Ambush mechanics from previous games. Unit order, unit choice, and entry point give you new tactical choices, and executing a successful Breach can really set Chimera Squad up for success.

We found that breaking up Missions into smaller Encounters – each separated by a Breach – created a really interesting, intense experience that rewards smart decisions. How do you best set up the upcoming Encounter for your squad? If you know you have three Encounters to complete to beat the mission, do you use all your expendable resources like grenades and medkits early on, or do you save them for the second or third Encounter?

It’s been really fun to see what strategies everyone comes up with.

Finally, how has the reception been to Chimera Squad and the changes it introduces to the XCOM design mold? What do you expect to take away from this game and apply to future XCOM games?

We’ve been floored with the reaction to XCOM: Chimera Squad! We knew that many of the changes being introduced in the game are very different from what franchise veterans are used to. It was important to us that our players understood why we made these changes and how things like agents, interleaved turns and Breach Mode could introduce interesting new gameplay opportunities that you couldn’t experience in any previous XCOM title.

As this was my first time as lead designer on an XCOM game, it was particularly gratifying to see players say that Chimera Squad still feels like an XCOM game at its core.

My takeaway from the response to the game is that so long as we continue to retain the core XCOM spirit, there is tremendous opportunity and variety in what an XCOM game can be. As a designer, I love having the flexibility to try new things, and it’s exciting to know we have such a supportive audience always pushing us to make great games!

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